The Right Countertops For an Old House

By Scott Sidler • July 22, 2019

The right countertops for an old houseThere are so many different kinds of countertops on the market today and I often get asked what an appropriate style for is for an old house. Historic kitchens were nothing like they are today and the idea of built-in cabinets with cohesive countertops was not common until the 1940s.

Before that time kitchens were a collection of furniture to help accomplish the tasks necessary. Freestanding sinks, Hoosier cabinets and the like were more common elements to kitchens before built-in cabinets became popular in mid-century kitchens when kitchen technology really took off.

So, when you’re renovating the kitchen in an old house what countertops are best? What is period appropriate and how can you help your kitchen look like it belongs in your old house and isn’t an anachronistic mess. I’ll cover some of the most common options available and what style houses they fit best in this post.

Soapstone

soapstone countertopsSoapstone is a classic material that has been mined for thousands of years and used for things like cookware, sinks, fireplace hearths, and of course countertops. Remember chemistry class in high school? Chances are pretty good that your bunsen burner rested comfortably atop a soapstone counter since they are often found is labs because of soapstone’s naturally antimicrobial characteristics and its longevity.

Soapstone can be either dark grey when left un-oiled or it can be coated with mineral oil to create a deep rich black color with white veins running throughout. Soapstone is a softer stone and it can be scratched easily, but those scratches can actually be sanded out.

Often you’ll find soapstone countertops with integrated drain runnels leading to a soapstone or farmhouse sink. The easy workability of soapstone makes it a great option as well.

This is one of my favorite options for a historic kitchen countertops if you couldn’t tell, especially if you lean toward white cabinetry because of the nice color contrast. Soapstone is also very affordable compared to other natural stone or engineered stone products.

Marble

marble countertopsGo to any old coffee shop in Italy and you’ll likely find a well worn Carrera marble countertop somewhere in there. This workhorse of commercial and residential kitchens for centuries is extremely popular due to some of the great qualities it exhibits like its attractive appearance, heat resistance, durability, and easy workability.

Much like soapstone marble is very easy to work so that keeps costs down and allows it be maintained more easily. One downside is that it is more easily stained than options like quartz or granite due to its porous nature. Its color is almost exactly the opposite of soapstone with a soft white base and dark grey veins.

For a truly timeless and elegant look you really can’t beat marble.

Wood

Butcher block countertopsYes, believe it or not wood countertops were popular in old houses. Sometimes that meant butcher block counters made traditionally of maple or other light and hard woods, but don’t limit yourself. As long as you can pick a solid, hardwood that isn’t afraid of getting wet then you have more options than you might think. Species like Brazilian cherry, mahogany, or walnut can be attractive options that fit well in any historic kitchen.

It’s important when contemplating wood countertops to consider the finish and what you plan to use them for. Do you plan to cut and prep directly on the countertop? Then the finish needs to be a food grade finish like mineral oil or something similar. Also keep in mind that wood countertops while very attractive require more maintenance than stone to keep looking good. Are you willing to keep up with the maintenance? If not, wood may not be the right option for you.

Tile

Pinwheel tileIt may sound off because tile is not too common on countertops these days but from the 1920s to 1940s it appeared often enough I thought it needed mentioning. For homes in that era a tile countertop made of popular historic tile patterns might just fit the bill for your old house.

Stick with porcelain tile rather than ceramic since it is usually more durable and less noticeable if there is a chip or other damage since the color is throughout on porcelain. Regarding maintenance it’s easy to repair if a tile breaks by doing spot replacement which is nice as well; however, keeping the grout lines clean and attractive can be challenging.

Formica

formica countertopsWhen the modern kitchen exploded in the late 1940s and 1950s mid-century modern houses jumped enthusiastically to Formica as the choice du jour of their new kitchens. Its wealth of vibrant colors reflected the positivity of the American spirit in those post-war boom times.

While not as durable as the other options mentioned above Formica has no competitors when it comes to color varieties or low prices. If you’ve got a mid-century modern home don’t dismiss formica as a cheap alternative but rather an opportunity to create a bright and colorful statement with your retro kitchen.

Other Countertops

Like I mentioned earlier there are plenty of options for countertops these days and you may want to choose something not in the list above. Fine. No harm no foul, but just know that the materials below are not historically accurate. It’s not that they are bad, they’re just slightly out of place in a historic home.

Granite

Durable, with lots of color options. If you haven’t seen granite countertops you must have been living in a cave for the last 30 years because they have proliferated so much that they have eclipsed almost every other option due largely to their high durability, relatively low price, and vast selection of colors.

Quartz

One of the hardest of all stone options quartz is also the most expensive at roughly twice the cost of granite. It comes in a variety of colors as well, though it doesn’t have quite the variety of granite.

Engineered Stone

Engineered stone is made by combining small pieces of quart crystals with a resin binder which allows the manufacturer to create a more consistent looking product than natural stone which can vary greatly. These are almost as hard as granite and very durable, but typically on the expensive end of the options we’ve discussed.

I hope this has given you a good idea of your options. You’ve got a lot to choose from and it should be more than sufficient for just about any kitchen remodel if you stick to one of the options above. How about you? What countertops do you currently have and do you like them?

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10 thoughts on “The Right Countertops For an Old House”

  1. My 1931 Tudor cottage has what appears to be the original kitchen. I know it’s original because it still has the “cold closet” cupboards adjacent to the ice hatches on the outside of the house. I’ve always wondered if the cream-colored 4″ square tile countertops (with black “bull nose” tile on the edges) was original; this article implies that it probably is. Now I have to agonize over how much to preserve and how much to change. I’m one of the last houses around here with an original kitchen (which is partly why I bought it), but the layout is awkward and there’s no good place for a dishwasher. I think I will still go with tile though, now that I know that it’s period-appropriate.

  2. For my 1920’s bungalow I chose oak butcherblock for the perimeter cabinets and a Corian that looks a lot like oiled soapstone (the color is Earth) for the island. I would have loved soapstone for the island, but wanted an integrated, no seam sink so Corian won. The 2.5′ x 3′ end of the island is the workhorse of the kitchen and gets heavy use. I admit I tend to neglect the butcherblock which needs a good sanding and treatment, but other than a small crack between 2 pieces at the end of a run which opens and closes with the seasons it’s in decent shape.

    You need a photo gallery so use folks proud of our antique homes have a place to post.

    1. PS. I went with butcherblock because my dad informed me that the original counters (a kit home from Gordon Van Tine) that came with the kit were maple butcher block. I only remembered them as some god awful linoleum that must have been put on in the 30’s or 40’s. Linoleum makes a good countertop surface as well.

  3. And in the early 20th century modest homes, linoleum (not vinyl) with a simple metal edge was common. Followed later by Formica with a fancier chrome edge. Eschewing fancy stone, which seems overdone in simple bungalows and cottages, in our rehabs I have often been tempted by linoleum. We use it frequently on our kitchen and bath floors, and I see it used on grocery check-out counters a lot. Fun color choices! But instead we have chosen harder laminates that look like linoleum and we use a chrome edge. They are what they have always been- durable and affordable. We can do a countertop with a classic historic look for hundreds instead of several thousand. And people LOVE them.

  4. Despite pretty much everyone warning me against it, we chose marble for our counters and back splash. And yes, it does etch, chip, and scratch easily. But to me, that is all part of the charm. I think of it as a patina. Those first few marks were a little heart-stopping, but eventually they all sort of run together. It is easy to seal, easy to clean, and beautiful.

  5. I used soapstone for my countertops and love them. We had a drain board engineered in, as you mentioned. We went with cabinetry by cliqustudios because of their low price point and they make a line where the doors and drawers fit into the cabinet frame. They look like the cabinets I had in the pre war apartments I used to rent. My new cabinets look old, but the doors don’t stick and and all the shelves slide out. For flooring, we used the exact sample you used. I think it’s called Pin Wheel. It was on sale when we bought it for $4.00 a sq foot! It is marvelous and cleans very easily. We found reproduction glass cabinet pulls and hardware, plumbing and electrical fixtures online. Everything looks great and our kitchen blends in nicely with the rest of our bungalow home. Wish I could add photos, but doesnt look like I can.

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